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Fleshing out history

Sun., Aug. 14, 2005

WASHINGTON – Alan Hawk, a museum collections manager, turns the key on a big light blue locker, opens a drawer and reveals some of history’s treasures: sections of bullet-pierced vertebrae from both President James Garfield and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Next to them is a little jar containing President Dwight Eisenhower’s gallstones. And in a nearby cabinet is the full skeleton of Able, the first monkey sent into space.

The gems are among 25 million artifacts held by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. This is no ordinary museum. On the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the facility was established in 1862 by Surgeon General William Hammond to collect “specimens of morbid anatomy … together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed.”

Today, the museum and two warehouses hold 5,000 skeletal specimens, 10,000 preserved organs and 12,000 microscopes, surgical instruments and other objects. It’s all there to document the history and practice of medicine since the Civil War.

It may seem a bit ghoulish. But this is serious business for the museum staff: “We preserve a very specialized version of American history,” said Michael Rhode, chief archivist.

The museum is a gold mine for Civil War buffs. The Civil War exhibit greets visitors entering a 35,000-square-foot viewing area. It includes a lock of hair and skull fragments from Abraham Lincoln and the leg bone of Civil War Gen. Daniel Sickles lost at Gettysburg.

And there is the truly macabre. The collection includes the preserved head and torso of an arsenic poisoning victim, the lung of a coal miner and a softball-sized hairball taken from the stomach of a girl obsessed with eating her hair.

Its archives hold clues for historians, investigators and lawyers. Documents include a pathologist’s observations of President John Kennedy’s autopsy. There is a collection of medical catalogs and advertisements, including an 1860s surgical instrument sampler and recent Viagra ads.


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